Hans Rosling

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s available from November 10; RRP $32.99 for trade PB, $15.99 for ebook.

An important thing to know about me is that I am a very big Hans Rosling fan. I think the first thing I ever saw from him was his TED talk about the Magic Washing Machine – an example of how to think about poverty, and the spread of people in terms of income across the globe, and the difference that a washing machine makes to everyday life. And then there’s the greatest four minutes of stats you’ll ever see: 200 countries, 200 years, in 4 minutes (and 1948 was a great year). It highlights one of Rosling’s key points that he wants people to know: overall, the world has improved dramatically over the last two centuries. (With the caveat that he acknowledged profoundly in his first book, that many part of the world are better but still bad – like a premature baby in a NICU, who is still ill but better than previously.) And if you want to know just how much of a badass he was, watch this interview with a Danish journalist.

… so as you can imagine, when I learned that Rosling had written a memoir (with journalist Fanny Hargestam) in the year before he died (too young), I was very, very excited. His first book, Factfulness, co-written with his son and daughter-in-law (who worked with him at Gapminder) was mostly about the sorts of preconceived notions that impact on the way people view the world (like the Generalisation Instinct that makes us believe everyone in ‘that’ category – race, religion, gender – is exactly the same). Within it, though, were also all sorts of stories about Rosling’s own life – which was a fascinating one.

This is not a standard (auto)biography or even memoir. Rosling wasn’t writing it just to talk about himself, or even just to reflect on his own life, as far as I can tell. His purpose was to use his life and his experiences to teach readers about the world – hence the title. The man who started as a doctor, became a researcher and then a statistician was, in the end, a teacher. You can see that in his TED talks, and get a clear sense of it when he despairs about the lack of knowledge people have about the world. (Many people who take the Ignorance Survey over at Gapminder do worse, in Rosling’s words, than chimps – they at least would choose at random, whereas most people seem to have overwhelmingly negative views about the world.)

This book is amazing. Rosling’s life was amazing, and the writing is beautifully simple. He starts in Sweden, becoming a doctor; spends time in Mozambique as a doctor; investigates a debilitating illness there, and later a similar problem in Cuba; gets into research, and eventually into teaching, and develops the way of presenting stats that – with the bubble charts his son and daughter-in-law created – really made him famous. Which gets him to Davos, and speaking to people like Melinda Gates. (When Factfulness came out, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a copy to every US college grad that year.) Rosling doesn’t shy away from personal details – some tragic, some wonderful. And he also doesn’t shy away from sharing the difficult, and sometimes bad, decisions that he made over his life. Everything he talks about is aimed at helping the reader to understand him for the sake of understanding how he made his decisions – and what that says about the world. One of the most difficult sections is when he talks about working in an under-resourced, under-staffed, hospital in Mozambique, post-independence. He has to make incredibly difficult decisions. And sometimes they have poor outcomes. Rosling doesn’t attempt to cover that up; it’s all in the context of understanding the world.

One of the great revelations of this book is Agneta Rosling, Hans’ wife. She seems an amazing woman – definitely a match for him. And let’s be honest, you’d have to be, because Hans comes across as one of those people it’s incredible to watch and listen to but would actually be difficult to live with. Agneta had her own career, and actively worked with Hans in some stages of their lives, and supported him – and was supported back.

I read this book very quickly, because it’s an easy read and I really wanted to know everything. There were moments, though, where I had to put it down: occasionally to stare at nothing and consider the world, occasionally to shed a tear, and sometimes to just breathe and let new knowledge settle. I don’t tend to read modern biographies; they usually bore me. This one, though, I will be praising to everyone for a long time. Highly, highly recommended.

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